Many cinematic tales have been told about the mythical Yeti, but none have been quite like Abominable, a new animated feature about the title creature’s encounter with a Chinese family on a trek to get back to his own. Producers Peilin Chou and Suzanne Buirgy, actor Chloe Bennet, and writer-director Jill Culton stopped by the Academy on September 29, 2019, to shed some light on this endearing tale of friendship and fantasy. The movie originated when Culton was struck by the idea of doing a Yeti film, but “there’s not much lore about them. They’re fabled to live on Mount Everest and be kind of ferocious. Everyone’s seen their footprints in the snow, but there was really nothing. So I thought, ‘Well, this is a great opportunity to come up with the Yeti lore that might be the lore that kids live with for the rest of their lives.’ And the other thing that was really appealing to me, too, was just that I wanted a really strong female lead. That was important to me, and I wanted a role model that was more of a tomboy.”
“I grew up in Ventura,” the California native added, “surfing, skateboarding, camping, and I threw on whatever was laying on my floor pretty much. And I just really was not into kind of the princess movies because I felt like there was no role model for me. And so that was really important to me. And then of course I’ve grown up, and I still have giant dogs. And that was actually a huge inspiration for just the beginning part of Everest, to have him walk on fours instead of the expected two legs, and to make him playful, and to have that nonverbal communication that we have with our pets.”
Buirgy found the process of making the film full of revelations, especially when it came to its human characters. “I think the surprise was that in the end, the story was so universal, when we were worried, did they seem like they were American kids? Did they seem like they’re Chinese kids?… That’s the beautiful part of this story: yes, we do have things in common. We have very specific cultural differences, but we can find the common things and hopefully end up with a gorgeous movie and a beautiful story.”
“From inception,” Chou added, “Jill had this idea of taking the Yeti home to the Himalayas. China was a natural geographical place that they would live and come from. And I think it was very organic from the beginning… It doesn’t matter if you’re a grandmother in Russia, or a little boy in Brazil. You definitely don’t have to be Chinese. It all speaks to you.”
As Bennett noted, the film was also a harmonious product of two studios: “ We had a great team of artists in Shanghai at Pearl Studio. And our production designer, Max Boas, worked very closely with them there because they brought a lot of originality and authenticity to the work. But we have an amazing team of people at DreamWorks; they’ve been there for a long time, and they just get stronger and stronger. So we leaned on them for animation and the departments that follow behind. We were working in collaboration with each other because we were constantly asking questions, getting information back and forth from the two studios, and it really felt like it was a partnership. Even though work was done one place or another in some instances, we were having a critical dialogue with each other.”
Balancing cultural authenticity with universality ultimately proved to the film’s benefit, according to Chou: “There are hundreds of signs in the film that are so authentic to China. When we previewed in China, actually, a lot of people thought, ‘Oh, this is not a co-production. This is a local film,’ because, for example, buxiban is after-school learning that every Chinese child dreads and goes to, but it’s something specific to China. That’s in our film and people were feeling like, ‘There’s no way that somebody outside of China would know that.’ But apart from the superficial, we had conversations every day about how do we make the film more authentic? How do we make the film more organic?
“One scene that always stands out to me is when Yi is rebuffing Nai Nai because she doesn’t want to talk to her. And Suzanne and I had I don’t know how many conversations we had about that scene. It was endless. But it was about how would a Chinese teen do that? Because she wouldn’t do it like an American teen who might stomp away and slam the door.”
Bennett could relate to the film and her character based on her own personal experience as well. “I was a tomboy who is half Chinese, and people are like, ‘You don’t look Chinese,’” she said. “Even Chinese people are like, ‘You’re not Chinese.’ All the time my grandma says I don’t look Chinese, and she’s Chinese and knows that I am. But I was raised much more culturally Chinese than what people kind of expect when they look at me.
“That’s part of being culturally different that people don’t think about. They think about the aesthetic part. They think about other things but they don’t think about the nuance.”
“Animation is such a visual medium, and I think when you grow up as an artist, that’s how you see stories,” Culton said. “So even before I write, I sketch a bunch of stuff. In fact, people always ask how Yi got a violin. And I just kept sketching her with a violin on a roof with buildings behind her. And that was the birth of the character with the violin. It’s crazy how art can influence story and vice versa.”
The experience was personal for Chou as well, not least of all when the film opened to audiences around the world. “ For me, this is the first time ever a modern-day Chinese family has been featured in a global animated film,” she revealed. “It was so profound, that notion. Actually, I’m still kind of in disbelief that, this weekend, the number one box office film features a modern-day Chinese family. It’s hard not to feel so emotional about that. Growing up, never seeing someone that looked like myself in film and television, it’s kind of been a life mission that I really believe in.”
Watch the full discussion: